Friday, May 29, 2009

Island idyll in Indonesia

Weary of the hectic buzz of Singapore, Sophie Lam turns the clock back to discover Nikoi – an Indonesian island paradise where the pace of life is truly tranquil

By 8am, the sun was nudging higher in the pale blue sky, preparing to bake the island once again, while the air already felt choked with humidity. Thankfully, the terminal building was air-conditioned. It was also peppered with shops cheerfully flogging holiday accoutrements: diving and golfing apparatus, Hawaiian-style swimming gear and sun creams. From here my destination was the Riau Archipelago: just 50km away, but over the international border in Indonesia.

Just under an hour later we pulled into the harbour at Bintan island. Despite being south-east of Singapore, you have to wind back your watch by an hour in the Riau islands, gaining precious time. Lured by a "Welcome to Bintan" sign painted in tropical colours, we snaked on to dry land: white sand, dense green foliage and chirping wildlife.

Bintan, although not an instantly familiar name to UK holidaymakers, is one of Indonesia's most important tourist destinations; with over 17,500 Indonesian islands to choose from, this is the place where Singaporeans flock to the beaches. But there is also plenty of culture, with stilted coastal villages to visit, rural plantations, a nomadic population of sea-dwellers called the Orang Laut (who live on boats often little bigger than a canoe), as well as fishermen, farmers and communities of Malays, Chinese, Muslims and Buddhists.

But I was travelling across the island and over the sea again to Nikoi, an atoll around 8km off the east coast of Bintan. There was no traffic as we sped through Bintan's "International Resorts" territory, a sanitised zone of sprawling hotels and golf courses hidden down long drives and sealed off from the rest of the island by heavy-duty checkpoints. Out the other side lay a gently rolling spread of green fields, tin-hut shops, colourful houses and people zipping around on scooters. At the coastal village of Kawal, I boarded a small fishing boat, upon which plastic chairs were un-stacked and a cool box of drinks produced as diesel fumes began to chug out into the air. At first Nikoi looked like a smudge of green in the distance; it didn't get much bigger as we approached.

The island, which covers not even one square kilometre, was bought by Australian couple Andrew and Julia Dixon five years ago. They'd been holidaying nearby and had met Bintan resident Peter Timmer, an architect from the US. The Dixons were charmed by the natural beauty of the Riau islands, yet disenchanted by the anonymous hotels that colonised them. It just so happened that Timmer knew of one that was up for sale. Together with a group of financiers, the Dixons purchased Nikoi and, with Timmer's help, developed it into a luxurious but low-key retreat. "It was hard to believe a piece of paradise could remain uninhabited and untouched a mere 85km from Singapore," says Andrew Dixon.

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